He begins a humid July morning with the familiar ambience of a familiar place.
As the pop of tennis balls off rackets echo throughout the indoor tennis center at the IMG Academy, storied tennis coach Nick Bollettieri is in his element.
“I’m not here every day like I used to be,” he said. “But I still give lessons, and I’ll continue to do so for as long as I’m able.”
Bollettieri will turn 83 years old July 31, and after six decades in the business of coaching some of the best-known players in the game, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame July 13, in Newport, R.I.
Since its start in 1955, the International Tennis Hall of Fame has honored 240 of the game’s greatest personalities from 21 different countries.
“I’ve been inducted into 10 other halls of fames, but this was by far the highest honor I could receive as a tennis coach,” he said. “I’ve been called the greatest ever, but I can’t accept that; maybe I’m the best crazy tennis coach ever because I went in a totally different direction in developing players.”
Longboat Key roots
Bollettieri isn’t one to mince words, and he’s blunt about how he ended up in Florida.
“Without the Colony Beach hotel I wouldn’t be here,” he said of the shuttered Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key. “That was the No. 1 tennis resort for about seven years, and I started my academy there.”
But he comes from humble roots in the New York City suburbs.
Born in Pelham, N.Y., to Italian immigrant parents, Bollettieri graduated from Pelham Memorial High School in 1949.
“My tennis career didn’t start to take off until my junior year of high school,” Bollettieri said. “I played football mostly, and I was a pretty good quarterback too, but nobody played tennis on our side of town.”
In a area comprised mostly of African-American and Italian families, tennis was virtually nonexistent in his neighborhood. However, he credits his uncle-in-law for getting him started at the New Rochelle Tennis Club, in New Rochelle, N.Y.
After high school, Bollettieri attended Spring Hill College, in Mobile, Ala.
“There was no football team where I went to college, or else I probably would have played and things might have turned out differently for me,” he said. “But I decided to go out for the tennis team, and I winded up playing on year of tennis at No. 4 singles and No. 2 doubles.”
After graduating in 1953 with a degree in philosophy, he served in the Army, attaining the rank of first lieutenant.
After the military, his coaching career began to soar. After dropping out of the University of Miami law school in 1956, he turned to teaching tennis full-time at Victory Park, in North Miami Beach.
Some of Bollettieri’s first students were Sheryl Smith and Brian Gottfried, and his first formal tennis camp was at the Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wis.
However, he got his first big break in the early to mid-1970s, when he was asked to be the head tennis pro at Dorado Beach Hotel, in Puerto Rico, when it was a Rockefeller resort.
In 1977, longtime Colony Beach & Tennis Resort owner Dr. Murray “Murf” Klauber scheduled an interview with Bollettieri, who had recently been let go from a Virgin Islands resort.
As Klauber recently told the Longboat Observer, the publisher of Tennis magazine called him and told him not to hire Bollettieri, which piqued Klauber’s interest. Klauber told Bollettieri he wanted to make the Colony the No. 1 tennis resort in America.
Bolletieri agreed to Klauber’s stipulations, including all-white uniforms with Colony logos, allowing women to start playing at 8 a.m. and morning lessons on Saturdays and Sundays — both unheard of in tennis at the time.
The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy started at the Colony in 1978, and the facility that is now the IMG Academy began as the NBTA in 1981.
It was there he formed the first full-time, live-in academy for aspiring junior tennis players, with IMG building on Bollettieri’s ideas of how to develop young athletes.
The IMG Academy bought out the NBTA in 1987, and Bollettieri Tennis has been the main fixture since then. The facility now has more than 750 employees, with nearly 1,000 full-time students from more than 80 countries.
The academy offers instruction in eight different sports. The complex covers more than 450 acres and has a $197 million expansion underway that’s expected to support more than 2,600 jobs and generate an economic output of over $321 million.
Meeting their match
Bollettieri has coached some of the games top players, including 10 who have been ranked No. 1 in the world.
In his 2014 autobiography, “Bollettieri: Changing the Game,” several of his former students offer endorsements about his influence throughout their careers:
“He provided an umbrella of protection as I fell under the glare of the international spotlight,” Andre Agassi said of Bolletteri. “There were days when I felt that it was him and I against the world.”
Along with Agassi, Bollitteiri was influential in the careers of several other dominant players, such as Monica Seles, Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams.
“My life wouldn’t be the same if I had never met Nick,” Serena Williams said. “I am happy to know him, not only as a friend, but as a coach.”
Known for his firecracker personality and experimental approach to coaching tennis, Bollettieri knows he has been somewhat of a controversial figure at times.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my career on impulse,” he said. “But if you’re afraid of making mistakes and taking chances in life, success is hard to find.”